I read an interesting article in today’s New York Times Magazine on the concept that “fidelity” perhaps need not be the primary focus of a successful relationship. Frankly, I’m not sure that any sane person has ever suggested that it should be the primary focus, although it clearly is a significant focus for many (and probably most) couples.
The author primarily focuses on Dan Savage’s assertions that (1) monogamy is difficult, (2) it is important to understand that sometimes the sexual needs of one or both partners can best be met outside the relationship, and (3) honesty is vitally important. In general, I agree on the latter two points, if not necessarily on the first–and here’s how I arrived there:
Longtime readers will remember that this site was originally a very different animal than it is today. It was pretty much built on the foundation of my own personal sexual revolution as I paraded through the back rooms, sex clubs, and dark alleys of San Francisco’s South of Market Area. To use a polite term, I considered myself something of a sexual libertine. I still do. Long term relationships. cohabiting, and–Great Pumpkin forbid–marriage were not on the agenda.
And then I met Mark. Suddenly I found a kind of love that I’d never experienced before, and likely never will again. Seemingly overnight, all the rules changed. The funny thing is that I never really thought of myself as “being monogamous”. In fact, that’s not a conscious choice I ever would have made and it was most certainly not some sort of “moral awakening” or whatever. The fact is that after a time, I just didn’t really feel like pursuing anyone else. It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t difficult. It just was. Was I still attracted to other men? Of course. Did I get rid of all my porn? Yeah, right. Pursuing other boys sort of ended for me the way that heavy drinking had a few years earlier: I just woke up one day and realized I didn’t really do that anymore. And this is why I suggest that, at least in my case, monogamy was not at all difficult, mainly because it was not a choice I made but something that sprang naturally for me out of my feelings for my partner.
That said, I understand that this is not how it works for everyone. And that’s important here when we consider how couples deal with extramarital coupling. I would never suggest that my relationship experience is–or should be–a model for anyone else. Relationships are built of individuals who have a nasty habit of having a whole world of different needs and wants. Who the hell am I to tell another couple how they should relate to themselves or anyone else? That’s way above my pay grade. And that’s what irritates me so much about some proponents of polyamory and open relationships, with their smug assumptions that their way is the only “correct” option for all of humanity and that anyone who disagrees or has a different experience is just too fucking stupid or unevolved to know any better. In short, they’re every bit as didactic and judgmental as fundamentalist Christians who offer heterosexual monogamy as the only model.
But I digress. Savage is not going down this “one true way” path and I very much respect him for it, although he is quick to remind us that “men were never expected to be monogamous.” He’s probably correct in this, but advancing such a purely evolutionary argument leaves him open to the obvious criticism that men were also never expected to be homosexual. It’s important to recognize the “nurture” in this equation as well as the “nature.” As Judith Stacey said in the article, “Monogamy is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”
All in all, though, I find myself agreeing with most of what Savage says, at least on a personal level. Like him, I am skeptical that the concept of polyamory would ever work in my own relationships. While I might have been upset by a partner having a random sexual encounter here and there, I could probably have understood and coped with that. But I know that I would never have been able to tolerate a partner having long term, ongoing sexual and romantic relationships with other people. If a sexual need needs to be addressed outside the relationship, that’s one thing, but if a relationship need isn’t being satisfied inside the relationship, I think there’s a problem. But I recognize that not everyone would agree on that. In my case, though, it just wouldn’t be fair to me or to my needs; it would be too much wear and tear on my emotions. And it would probably be no picnic for the partner who wanted multiple relationships, either, as he’d have to either hide them from me or live with how miserable they were making me.
And therein lies what I think is the biggest issue: the fact that there is too often both a discrepancy between what the partners want and a lack of communication about it. This too often makes compromise and even further communication impossible. When one partner presents an ultimatum, the other is almost genetically pre-programmed to reply with another ultimatum–or even worse, to throw his own needs out the window in an effort to “save the relationship.” Either one is a dead end and is all but guaranteed to cause (probably fatal) problems that might not have occurred if there had been a mutual dialogue at an earlier point.
I don’t actually believe that most couples make sexual fidelity (I really hate that term) the primary issue in their relationships as Savage suggests, although most do make it a pretty big one. And I agree that individuals in a strong relationship will generally deal better with this issue–as they will with any issue–than those in one that’s already troubled. Whatever solution works for them (on fidelity, finances, priorities, whatever) is OK as long as it’s mutual and as long as it’s discussed before it becomes something toxic.
I remind you, however, that as a recent “person of divorce,” my take on how to manage a successful relationship might be somewhat suspect and worth ignoring completely…